As Doug Paisley gets ready to open for Jim Cuddy, the critically lauded troubadour talks about surviving the Canadian music scene, playing country in Toronto and stepping out onto Massey Hall’s legendary stage.
You started playing weekly bluegrass and old-time country gigs with bands at the Cameron House and Tranzac Club 11 years ago. How does a guy who grew up in midtown Toronto get into country?
We felt pretty marginal when we started, but more people are doing it now. It ebbs and flows. There’s definitely a tradition of totally urban country and western music in Toronto. Rural people might find it strange, but people don’t question it here – it’s just more music to explore. Besides, I was reading an interview with Brad Paisley [a “new country” star] He said, “Look, what I sing is not country music, it’s suburban music, with suburban values and audiences.” There has been a cultural shift, and it also relates to what we’re doing.
Are you looking forward to going in the back door of Massey Hall for the first time?
I’ve seen all my musical heroes there: Dylan, Merle Haggard, Zappa, Lightfoot, Neil Young. It’s the landmark stop, and it’s exciting to be a part of that in my own small way. So there’s a lot of personal satisfaction for me, but I’m hoping I can keep it at bay and just play a good show.
There’s much hand-wringing, call it digital abrasion, in the music industry these days. How has the advance of MP3s affected you?
People are not walking to the store to spend $20 on albums any more. They’re getting free music. I started out after the fallout, when record companies didn’t have as much money. I never experienced the volumes of sales that those who came before me are missing. You see people with a lot of history in the business and you get the impression they don’t entirely know what’s going on. For me, there’s no sense of loss for what once was. If you keep modest expectations, the life of a full-time songwriter is laughably great. I’m not really looking for much more than that.
But to do it full-time, you need to make a living. What’s the outlook for feeding yourself with your craft?
If you go out and tour, you connect to people. There’s a process behind that. Even with all the technology that’s supposed to draw people together, it’s still a completely concrete thing, you have to drive to places, you have to shake hands with every person. It’s like a campaign, going to every town and meeting as many people as will come and talk to you.
Will an iFuture be friend or foe to the indie musician?
You get pennies on an album sale, but with iTunes, the musician’s cut is somewhere near 65 cents a track. So, a lean outfit can make good money by circumventing the old distribution and manufacturing costs. There’s also exposure. I think of HMV 20 years ago. Could I have gotten my CD on the shelf there any other way than sneaking it in myself? The only way would have been through a big U.S. or Canadian label.
Critics more or less stuttered when they reviewed your first two albums. Did that change your attitude?
It’s gratifying to read something thoughtful that’s been written about you. But reviews can also be one more thing to run from when trying to find inspiration. Positive feedback can interfere. If a little kid gets approval for something, they’ll do it over and over. It’s like that when a songwriter gets a good reaction, part of you can’t help but think, “Maybe that’s the kind of artist I am, maybe I should make more songs like that.” Then you’d be committing a third-generation interpretation of yourself, you’ve gone from being yourself to seeing yourself through the lens of one writer.
You describe your own songs as melodramatic. Is your well of inspiration full of tears?
I’ve probably had an easier life than most. Maybe there’s just more of a willingness to engage emotion in music and writing. I’m not repelled by sad feelings. My reaction is not to go roller skating. But ultimately, what’s important is service to the song. How the feelings come across in the songs is much more important than how true it is to whatever inspiring moment delivered it to me.
How long did it take you to accept Jim Cuddy’s invitation to open for him?
You couldn’t do much better. This tour is incredibly thorough and extensive. The only person who might surpass it is Stompin’ Tom Connors, who could sell out a show every 80 kilometres. Jim’s audience is kind and musically attuned. Touring Canada can be difficult; it’s hard to reach people and draw them out. These guys, through decades of hard work and consistency, have put all that together. We’re riding on the tail of that and it’s great exposure.
Are you looking forward to decades of similarly hard work?
All working musicians know how to play their instruments. It’s everything else they do that’s going to make the difference. The way it is in the industry now, I drive to a show, then we load the gear in and set it up. The second our set is over, I run out front to the table to sell CDs and meet people. As soon as the show is over, I do that again and then load the gear back in the truck. Maybe the next morning I’ll negotiate a publishing contract or book a show. Somewhere in there I write songs and record. I guess after a while you wouldn’t want to be working all the time, but what else are you going to do for the 22 hours a day you aren’t onstage? Maybe managing your own career is the new heroin for musicians on the road. A sad state of affairs, some would say, but I don’t mind.